Nurse fired over refusal to get flu shot, wear mask
Flu fears in the fall sparked requirement at Seton facilities.
By Mary Ann Roser
Published: 6:34 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010
Some Central Texas hospitals required employees to get flu vaccinations this year or wear masks while working with patients as the H1N1 swine flu virus spread and seasonal flu loomed. One nurse at the Seton Family of Hospitals was fired for refusing to do either.
Laurie Haw of Cedar Park, who worked at Seton Medical Center, said she has a strong immune system and would go home if sick.
"I don't feel like putting all of that in my body," she said of the vaccine.
Haw said she also did not wish to work all day in the surgical recovery area in a mask.
"They're coming out of anesthesia, and sometimes when people awake, the last thing they need to see is someone wearing a mask," she said.
Haw, the mother of a 17-year-old girl, was initially suspended and given another chance to comply. The 49-year-old was fired last month for refusing.
Seton spokeswoman Matilda Sanchez said Seton's goal is to keep employees and patients healthy. She did not have data on how many others opted out of the vaccine, mask or both. Haw and Sanchez said they didn't know of anyone else fired.
H1N1 sent thousands of Texans to hospitals for treatment. Studies show that health care workers face a higher risk of flu and are easy transmitters of illnesses because of their close contact with patients. Health care workers were on state and federal priority lists for the H1N1 vaccine, but now that vaccine supplies are more plentiful, most venues are offering them to everyone.
This year, Sanchez said Seton required employees in patient care areas at its 10 hospitals, including its psychiatric facility, Seton Shoal Creek, to get the seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccines or to wear a mask until flu season ends (usually in May). Doctors under a special contract with Seton hospitals were required to be vaccinated, and those with privileges in Seton hospitals were strongly encouraged to be immunized, Sanchez said.
Oct. 1 was the deadline for Seton workers to get the seasonal flu vaccine; Jan. 15 is the deadline for the H1N1 vaccine, she said.
Haw said she has never gotten a flu shot and thinks "building it up by exposure is a better way to hone your immune system."
St. David's HealthCare, which has five acute care hospitals in Travis and Williamson counties, required employees to get vaccinated against seasonal flu only or wear a mask by Nov. 15, said Dr. Steve Berkowitz, chief medical officer for St. David's. A handful of hospital staff members chose masks; none was terminated, he said.
St. David's did not to require the H1N1 vaccine because it became available so late, minimizing its effectiveness, Berkowitz said. He added that the risk of transmitting seasonal flu was higher for people in age groups who are most likely to be in a hospital, including older people.
Scott & White did not mandate flu vaccinations, according to spokeswoman Katherine Voss.
Swine flu is still circulating nationally, but it's fading, and seasonal flu appears relatively mild in Texas. Based on the latest report from the Texas Department of State Health Services, flu activity is "local," meaning that increases in cases are occurring in a single region of the state.
In a Twitter post Dec. 18, Seton reported: "Virtually zero swine flu in Austin currently."
That could change, and public health authorities are urging people to get immunized in case the H1N1 virus makes a comeback.
The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is offering free H1N1 vaccine to anyone who wants to be immunized at two clinics this month. Appointments must be made by calling 972-5520. The first clinic is 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Burger Center, 3200 Jones Road. The second is 1 to 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at Delco Center, 4601 Pecan Brook Drive.